Sept. 30, 2016 6:38 p.m. ET
As it does every October, the NFL is set to “go pink” this Sunday to show support for the American Cancer Society’s efforts to find a cure for breast cancer. But make no mistake: The NFL will not contribute one dime to breast-cancer research in this campaign.
Instead, the NFL “billionaires’ club”—the team owners—will require all of their players and coaches to be political showpieces.
The NFL says it has raised “nearly $15 million” for awareness and screening programs since 2009, much of it from the sale of “pink” merchandise. That’s about $2 million a year from an organization with some $12 billion in annual revenue. But strip away the orchestrated messaging of altruism—and the relatively small amount of money it raises for awareness and screening efforts—and the go-pink campaign is part of a calculated effort to attract more women to become football fans while offering a rose to those concerned about domestic violence.
Women make up, by various estimates, between 33% and 45% of the NFL’s fan base and are a valuable demographic for the league’s advertisers. Moreover, given the NFL’s struggle to meaningfully address domestic violence in the league, it’s no wonder the league singles out this particular health issue.
It is time to take the self-serving public relations out of supporting the cause of cancer and focus on the patients. Efforts should address their needs and research toward a cure, not just for breast cancer, but for all patients suffering from cancer.
I am a cancer surgeon, and having witnessed a patient gasp for air while dying compels me to want society to do everything, spend anything and educate everyone to cure cancer. In reality, however, funding for cancer research gets allocated to forms of the disease based heavily on public relations, rather than on the number of lives they claim.
For example, research for pancreatic cancer, whose average patient profile is a 62-year-old male, gets pennies on the dollar compared with breast cancer, for which the median age of diagnosis in women is 61.
That’s despite the fact that both forms of cancer claim roughly the same number of lives each year. The American Cancer Society estimates that 40,450 American women will die of breast cancer this year. Meanwhile, 41,780 deaths will occur this year from cancer of the pancreas, roughly 21,450 men and 20,330 women.
Though total numbers of deaths are nearly even, pancreatic cancer is a far more deadly disease. The lethality for pancreatic cancer is 79% of those diagnosed, compared with 16% for breast cancer. Yet the American Cancer Society reports it is currently funding 160 grants, totaling more than $88 million, focused on breast cancer. Pancreatic cancer is the focus of 35 grants totaling $16.6 million.
Those numbers don’t include federal funding, which also skews heavily toward politically popular cancers. In fiscal 2013 the National Cancer Institute’s overall budget was $4.79 billion. Broken down among 42 cancer types, breast-cancer research was by far the highest-funded cancer, receiving nearly $559.2 million, or almost double the $285.9 million directed at lung cancer, which was second-best funded. Spending on breast-cancer research was more than double the $255.6 million for research on prostate cancer, at No. 3 and the leading form of cancer afflicting men. Pancreatic-cancer research came in No. 9, with $101.9 million in fiscal 2013 funding from the NCI.
As for its “go pink” campaign, the NFL should consider moving beyond marketing campaigns to bolster its image. It should instead commit to deeper, meaningful investment—including research—on behalf of all cancer patients.
Dr. Makary, a surgical oncologist and professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is the author of “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Don’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care” (Bloomsbury, 2012).
Tags: American Cancer Society, breast cancer, cancer of the pancreas, domestic violence, Fighting Cancer, funding for cancer research, go pink, Marty Makary, National Cancer Institute, National Football League, NFL, pancreatic cancer, The NFL’s Pink Publicity Stunt Isn’t About Fighting Cancer, Unaccountable: What Hospitals Don’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care, winning female fans